Here’s why Bellingham switched to LED street lights

Old Fairhaven Parkway before, top, and after LED lights were installed.
Old Fairhaven Parkway before, top, and after LED lights were installed. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Streetlights have been an enduring icon in American cities since Benjamin Franklin designed candle fixtures in the 1750s for the streets of Philadelphia. The purpose then, as it is today, was to create a safer environment for all citizens, including pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

As part of the city of Bellingham’s commitment to healthy environment, we began exploring use of light-emitting diodes, know as LED, a dozen years ago. At that time, LED was not yet cost-competitive for roadway use. Before committing time and money, we needed to know that LED lights would be more efficient and less expensive than traditional street lighting.

In 2014, based on the experience of several other cities, including Seattle – which established the nation’s best practice city lighting standards with the Seattle Study, and with successful installation on several local streets – Bellingham City Council approved LED conversion of our 3,700 city-owned street lights. Soon, that conversion will be complete.

Why LED lights?

LED lights help our community accomplish several objectives. They are more energy efficient, which help us meet our climate action goals. They are cost effective, so they save taxpayers money. And they provide a truer light, which make our streets safer.

Because of our conversion to LED lights, beginning this year, the city will save approximately $240,000 annually in lighting costs. That’s important because the savings enables us to pay for this lighting and safety upgrade. Just as important, we are reducing our carbon footprint. LED lights last up to six times longer than previous sodium vapor lights, using less energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The old fixtures failed frequently and contained mercury and lead, while LED fixtures are often 100 percent recyclable and don’t use any toxic substances.

The challenge for the city is to meet our responsibility for citizen safety while addressing concerns.

That’s why LED lighting is a key component of the city’s Climate Action Plan and our declaration of 2016 as the “Energy Year.” Bellingham is one of 50 semifinalists nationwide in the running for the Georgetown University $5 million energy prize. We are partnering with the Bellingham Energy Prize coalition in this communitywide effort to find ways to save energy, and providing LED lighting on the city’s 3,700 light poles is a great step to reduce our energy consumption.

The new LED lights also improve visibility and safety. Better light quality and illumination can make Bellingham safer, as the new streetlights improve visibility for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians, and keep streets lit for those walking at night.

Making adjustments

While the benefits of LED are clear, the new enhanced lighting has drawn some concerns from residents. In historic areas, some residents associate the previous, dimmer lights with ambiance important to neighborhood character. Some fear the brighter lights contribute to light pollution and can disrupt sleep cycles. And some do not like the color, or temperature, of our new LED lighting.

To those with concerns, we hear you. The challenge for the city is to meet our responsibility for citizen safety while addressing concerns. Because we have clear safety needs, financial responsibilities and energy efficiency goals, we cannot accommodate every issue.

Here’s what we can do, and have done:

We can dim street lights as much as 90 percent in some residential areas during off-peak hours. We’re among the first in the nation to activate this capacity, which we’ll apply citywide to balance safety and efficiency.

We are staying current with technology and emerging research on street lighting so that we can adapt and change (within our fiscal responsibilities) to provide equitable options for street lights in all of our neighborhoods.

Our new street lights reduce night sky pollution.

By converting to LED lighting, our community has done the right thing for the right reasons based on the best technology available. In addition to saving nearly a quarter-million dollars per year in lighting costs, taxpayers will also benefit from lower maintenance and personnel expenses, improved visibility and enhanced safety, and the assurance that we are doing all we can to conserve our resources and reduce the city’s impact on the environment.

No matter how we approach it, LED lighting is something we can all be passionate about. As Benjamin Franklin once advised, “If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.” To learn more about the city’s new safety-enhancing lights, please visit cob.org and search “LED resources.”

This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to provide to share updates about City of Bellingham issues and projects. She invites citizens to contact her at 360-778-8100 or mayorsoffice@cob.org. Ted Carlson is the city’s public works director.